Multiple directors and several parts, How the West Was Won is a big movie. So big it was filmed and projected in Cinerama, three projectors running simultaneously with one giant curved screen. I've read that eyelines and whatnot may be a little weird watching this on a flat screen... I'm sure I've seen this movie before, more than once, but that wasn't something I would have been paying much attention to, I'm guessing.
Anyway, on to the movie.
Oh, the music. Classic stuff, sampled or copied in many a film since. Not too long ago I watched Romancing the Stone (because I was considering it for this blog), and I swear the music over the opening novel sequence is just this music straight, no copy, no reference, just plugged in as is. (If it wasn't it might as well have been.) But, for good reason. This music is Western music. This and that theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly--as iconic, or moreso than, some John Williams stuff for Star Wars or Superman.
The Erie Canal seems a little too far east, but the way this movie is set up, covering decades, it might as well start back east. One daughter of Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) even wants to go back east, to live where she can wear fine silks and have a man that smells good. Despite personal conversation, the cinerama setup means there can be no real closeups. Visually, we will not be pulled into these characters' lives. The curved screen (and the warped visual effect that leaves behind on a flat screen) immerses us in the world, but the action on center screen is like a play. Eve (Carroll Baker) wants the trapper Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart), but he can't settle down. This is a man who lives in the wilderness the Prescott family is heading into. For a guy in his mid-50s who spends his time alone in the wilderness, Stewart's trapper seems really comfortable around young women coming on to him. First Eve, and now the "Alabama Colonel"'s daughter Dora.
Take Zebulon's opening monologue about his family and how his two daughters are essentially unmarriable, I'm getting the feeling that the West Was Won through some heteronormative coupling out in the wilderness. Simple as that. Some good Christian values as well. I mean, did Zebulon really just pray for the evil souls he helped kill?
The other Prescott daughter, Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) wants to head back east as soon as she can. But, even after their raft has been destroyed and Zebulon and his wife Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) have been killed, all is well because Linus shows up to be with Eve. Oh, there's crying, but this is the frontier (well, I think they're only as far as Ohio at this point) and you might as well step aside and let Linus propose to you rather than cry too long over the fresh graves.
The Gold Rush is like a footnote, as our story moves to St. Louis, not California.
Then we get two men betting over how many petticoats the showgirls are wearing. Lilith is one of those showgirls and she has just inherited a gold mine in Caliornia. So, we are getting a wagon train west. Morgan (Robert Preston) is a bit of a sexist pig, methinks. Maybe it's historically accurate for the head of the wagon train who just told the single woman she can't go on the trip to comment on the pretty face she's got under the powder and on her "sturdy body."
Meanwhile, one of those gamblers from before, Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) offers his services to look after Lilith on her trip. The line from Agatha (Thelma Ritter)--"You know, I've a hunch you'll draw men like fish to bait. Maybe I can catch one of them while they swim by"--is funny and a little sad.
Some nice detail (if not explanation thereof) with the wagon train crossing the river... I remember watching a TV miniseries--I can't remember if it was True Women (1997) or Into the West (2005)--in which they spent a good deal of one episode with a wagon train dealing with a big hill they had to get over. There were big crank machines built up the hill and roped to pull the wagons up and it was a fascinating bit that wouldn't normally make it into a Western. Similarly, the horses holding guide ropes dangling across the river is a nice detail. I'd rather spend time with that than the love affairs of Eve and Lilith Prescott.
(And, I think this just turned into a musical.)
Morgan's proposal to Lilith is nice and practical, but the cinerama setup, keeping the shot, reverse shot make of the scene detach the two of them, reinforces the notion that the proposal is... well, not worth accepting. Sure enough, Lilith turns him down because "a woman wants to hear something a little more inviting."
And, finally we're in the West... well, did they cross the Rockies? There is an attack by Cheyenne (which should be too far north for this wagon train headed for California), and some nice (but a little repetitive) stuntwork.
Then jump ahead to California. Turns out the mine isn't worth much. Like Linus before, Cleve leaves only to come back again later. So, men can't be with women except, they have to. It's a tired setup and this is only the second time. (Oh, and Morgan shows up to propose a second time and get turned down a second time.)
A little pretentious but this movie is certainly trying to be epic. If it stopped getting bogged down in the trappings of romance, it might succeed. Maybe that was just Henry Hathaway, who directed the first two segments. Now, on to some John Ford.
(THE CIVIL WAR)
We're with Eve again. Linus is gone, went off to the war "when the first bugle blew" and now they've come for their son Zeb (George Peppard). (Peppard is actually nearly 3 years older than Baker who plays his mother.) Away we go with Zeb away from the farm (which does not seem to be in that riverside location where Eve vowed she would never leave). But, first Eve laments his leaving and monologues to her dead father.
War. Each segment here could really be its own movie, given more setup or more followthrough. Instead, we get these jumps.
And, so far no one has won the west. Zebulon and Rebekah Prescott died in a river, presumably in Ohio. Eve and Linus settled down there. Lilith made it west only to first take to the stage as she had in St. Louis then settle down to marriage... had her gold mine actually been worth something and she ended up striking it rich through hard work at the mine, that would have been a better story for this title. Had Eve continued on west after her parents died to go with same spirit that drove them, that would have been a better story for this title. And, now we're onto the Civil War, which, despite it's clear relationship with the Western film, has very little to do with the West.
We barely get the hint of a battle, then the narrator sums it up:
The guns that had roared al day fell silent around a little church called the Shiloh Meeting House. Many a man met his God that Sunday, but not in church.
It had been the bloodiest day of the war on the Western front. In the morning, it had looked like a Confederate victory, but by nightfall, no man cared to use the words "win" or "lose."
After Shiloh, the South never smiled.
Zeb talks of deserting with a Confederate soldier (Russ Tamblyn) he meets in the woods. But, Zeb has to kill that soldier after he tries to shoot at Generals Grant (Harry Morgan) and Sherman (John Wayne... and is that his whole performance here?). We get a glimpse of another battle, signaling that Zeb stuck with the army. Then he heads home to find his mother has die while he was gone. (I've got to wonder who buried her and put in the tombstone. She was left alone with Linus and Zeb gone, yeah? It's like graves happen by magic, when you don't want your... I would not at all call Zeb a lead, but anyway, you don't want your current protagonist to find the decaying body of his mother, which no one has found for who knows how long.
Suddenly, an answer--Zeb's got a brother who's "twice the farmer" he is. Too bad we couldn't actually get to know either of these men. John Ford could have done better.
Zeb's with some cavalry protecting men building the transcontinental railroad. Mike King (Richard Widmark) deliberately builds through Arapaho territory... And, we're really getting the cliffs notes version of the made up story here. To be fair, breaking a treaty with the natives in the name of money might be the first actual example of how we won the West.
Zeb meets an old friend of his father's, Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda) and we learn in passing that Linus died at Charlotte. Stuart helps Zeb fix things with the Arapaho chief but King keeps on building. Zeb resigns his position and the Arapaho stampede Buffalo through the settlement. (The latter was an impressive scene, actually.)
"Zeb tells Jethro, "A man belongs with his own kind, like him or not" and heads off to Arizona to find his "own kind" I guess.
The narrator tells us all about most of the Westerns we've seen before now...
The coming of the railroads brought changes in the land through which they passed. Now, immense herds of cattle were driven hundreds of miles to meet the lines, bound for markets in the East. Fences went up, cattle trails were barred, and the long and bloody wrangle began between cattlemen and homesteaders. The law was in the hands of whoever could shoot fast and straight except where there was somebody determined to stand for law. Others might look on sheep and a shepherd as a pastoral scene. But not the cattleman. To him, sheep destroyed grass, and grass came dear. And if a man's life were held cheaper than grass, it was considered a casualty of war, not a crime. And, in all this, the man with the star was only one against many. But time was running out for the reckless ones, the desperadoes, the gallop-and-gunshot boys, as more and more citizens demanded respect for the law and showed themselves ready to fight to uphold it...
Zeb is now a marshal because we might as well get to something closer to a Western (well, the railroad bit fit, I suppose). Outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) arrives in Gold City. (Lilith also shows up after we learn that Cleve has died.) Local marshal Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb) won't do anything about Gant so, of course, Zeb has to.
Meanwhile, Lou offers up a much more interesting story than we're seeing here. He says to Zeb:
You don't fool me for a minute, Zeb. You're not looking for a robbery. You're looking for Gant. You still carry lead where he shot you. That was Texas. And Oklahoma, where you killed Floyd. And now this.
I want to see that story.
Lilith tells Zeb's wife, Julie (WHO), "I guess there's nothing more pigheaded in a man than his sense of honor" as if anything she's seen has suggested that. Her father wasn't pigheaded; he was just taking care of his family. Her husband wasn't pigheaded either; he gave up gambling for her. What does she know? Well, she offers up more of the stuff that seems more interesting than what we've actually seen so far:
You take my Cleve now. Never could turn down a poker game. He felt duty bound to go. Three nights runnin' sometimes, but he wouldn't quit, not if his life depended on it.
Except, he did quit. The movie showed us as much.
Anyway, there's a shootout, Gant and his gang are killed, the train is wrecked (and it's mostly Zeb's faul (and he spends most of the shootout hanging off the side of the train while Ramsey does most of the shooting).
Then, Zeb and his family, along with Aunt Lilith, ride through Monument Valley to their new home. And the narrator ties everything together to some footage of the present that reminnds me of Disney's Soarin' over California ride.